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Nature: Horizons of My Soul

In the musical “The King and I,” the King exclaims, “It’s a puzzlement!”

That phrase slithers across my memory like a fer-de-lance as I consider the perplexing, shake-my-head in disbelieving grief at how often people say they are disconnected from nature but then avoid the very thing that would amend their distress.  Nature wants to share its wisdom with us, and when we walk into it, a thousand thousand voices invite us to listen, one at a time.

So, it’s a puzzlement how we do not consciously reconnect with nature on a daily basis.  The perceptual framework of reality that makes a pagan a “pagan” would seem to begin with understanding that without “this” there is no “that.”   No trees:  no oxygen:  no breath.  No vitalizing chloroformation:  no life:  no Awen.  It would appear to be simple economics:  no this, no that.  In different terms:  no ritual, no true honor.

What I like is beginning with the simplest origins of ritual—getting out into the mud, tasting the sounds, brushing against the rough texture of tree trunks, sitting in wet moss, walking in synch with the rhythm of the ocean, and listening with an open heart.  I like knowing that we are the same multiverse, and that to speak “to” nature is to speak to ourselves.  “That that thou art I am.”  And if we are feeling disconnected, what are we really saying? 

The entire planet is our nemeton, not just whatever magical circles we draw around us on a special occasion.  The nature connection is our absolute fundament, whether it’s seasonal snow, Pacific winds, forests, trickling streams or raging rivers after mountain storms.  Not attending to our divine-nature-connection on a regular basis is very much like building a house on shifting sand.  And creating a vision ritual without anchoring into the foundation of nature is like attaching a kite to a tattered string and thrusting it into a strong wind.

I should be fair and tell you why this comes up at this time.

Recently, I spent all five weekdays at a retreat in upper Maine.  It was led by a man who was flown in from the West Coast, and paid handsomely, to lead the 20 of us in medicine retreats based on his decades of training with his own indigenous Peruvian elders.  My having been in Peru to work with several indigenous shamans there, and having worked with other indigenous medicine workers in this country—never minding the other indigenous spiritual leaders we have all experienced—I had familiarity with some possibilities.  In all of those earlier experiences, a trained spiritual leader walks the boundary between this and the spirit-ancestor worlds.  It is shamanic training to bring the edges together for intentional purposes that benefit the entire complex of creation.  My expectations were high.

But this guy brought a paper bag full of “medicines,” and talked on and on and on about his view of things, including a diagram, and then dispensed various consciousness altering substances.  While we were all still in the midst of journeying, he left to go to bed somewhere else, taking his girlfriend with him…., oh, yes, and his driver, the white guy who concocted the chemical intoxicants (empathogens and hallucinogens).

It wasn’t what I was expecting from someone advertising himself as a shaman.  Furthermore, not once, and I do mean not once, did he reference the spirits of nature surrounding us at that coastal retreat, not the Atlantic Ocean, not the bay, not the trees, not the gravel or the grass, not any of the animals, nor any of the ancestral lineage of either human beings or of the attending plants, and certainly not the creepy crawlers and flying things that were biting our skin.  He didn’t mention them much less honor them, or much, much less seek to establish sacred-soul relationship, which ought never be assumed.  He referenced zero connection to anything outside whatever personal experience each individual might devise for herself and himself.  And isn’t that the problem:  assume disconnection, and then further actualize it by withdrawing even farther into sheer personal, atomized, individualized worlds.  He didn’t, in the course of the next three days before he finally said he was done and departed for good, acknowledge the obvious wounds that had arisen among and also between the people.  Nor did he step into the historical role of the shaman to address what was visible within the group.  Whatever his indigenous elders may have otherwise thought healing was, he walked away from it.

He was a drug pusher, pure and simple.

What is so different about that from people who push disconnecting rituals? 

That there was healing to be had happened in spite of him, not because of him.  It wasn’t until he left that people began the journey of authenticity towards healing.  But, even then, there was no reference to the spirits of place.  Not a one.

Well, except for this druid priest.  And I don’t boast of it.  I say it because of what I believe pagans ought to be doing.  Whether or not we call ourselves shamans is irrelevant, though I think we should forego the title and be happy with “priests of nature.”  It’s a generous enough and difficult enough journey to become priests of nature.  On the first night, I asked the “shaman” about the interwoven roles of ritual and plant medicines in his culture.  He blathered on about things familiar to any actor trained in improvisation, but said nothing about his cultural heritage.  On the second night, I felt the evening breeze like an indigo-colored wind come in through an open door door.  I turned to it and welcomed it.  The shaman did not notice.  He was in his blather.  The third night, I actively began healing work on other participants.  One of them even asked me specifically to tend to him.  In the midst of that, the “shaman” went away for good.

What mr. shaman missed:  the next day—our fourth day together—one of the members talked about his very first authentic encounter with a tree, how the bark seemed to dissolve and take him into its pith and sap.  He had never known a tree until then; he had never had a tree welcome him home like that.  He told the story several times.  That was a relationship he wanted honoring, and found it in the telling.

What’s the point?

Disconnection is endemic within our culture.  There are efforts in many places to awaken and restore us, but on the whole the culture is spiritually broken and violent towards nature.  It’s a pandemic that may affect any of us, because it is the context in which we live.  Restoration and healing, therefore, should be a foundation of our rituals.  This is more than resistance to our cultural climate.  It is the creation of consciousness and ethical behavior in the midst of nature’s and society’s normal cycles of change.   Perhaps we call it “listening to spirit.”  Perhaps we are more attuned to the spirit of plants or to a particular animal.  In fact, some of us are initiated into very particular kinds of medicine work based on who (in nature) is speaking to us.  We call them our allies.  They enter our dreams.  When we honor them, they establish relationship with us; they reach out to us.

The desire for healing the disconnection comes from both directions across the veil.  Both sides are listening, and both—in right relationship—are 100% responsible for their part of the deal.  It’s not a 50-50 spread.  It’s not 50% my responsibility and 50% [their] responsibility.  Of course they want to be heard!  Same with us.

So, before we tackle the thorny issues of how to create and maintain community, even “pagan” community, we should begin with restoring and honoring our sacred community with the land, the spirits of place, our blood ancestors—with everything that we welcome in from the far and near horizons.  They are our context.  They are the source of that to which we should listen.   In a way, they are the Mind within which each of us has mind.  They are the planetary nemeton stretching over geographies of time and space.  They are the community that already exists and within which—damaged though it may be—that we have our life.  That is the Consciousness who turns its attention to us and seeks to invoke our response.

Paganism, in other words, is an invocation from nature towards us.

By ritual, we pagans honor and invoke the sacred and conscious relationship.

From there, we may move on.

For me, this is the foundational work of pagans.  I have had numbers of students who want this, but then they don’t want to do the work.  They like the sound of the poetry; they like the attitude of calling themselves pagan in the face of organized religion; they like the mead; they like the thoughts and the ideation of inspiration that arises from riding the Awen; they like the hope of change for themselves; they like the costumery.  It’s the muddy work of making and sustaining sacred relationship that eludes them.  When I say that it’s daily work over a long time, most of them have eventually drifted away.  Some have said that they are frightened by the possibility that once you set out on this path, there is no turning back.   Alternately, the thrill seekers move on; they are spiritual surfers.  The ones with arts background, more familiar with the cycles of chaos and creation, are the most intrigued.  Each of them, nonetheless, takes something of value with him.

But still, the big problem for many is how to think inside the illusive “pagan” mindset.  After many years of teaching, I have come to believe that the sticky place is that moment most sought after, when you live from within that way, and succeed in doing it in a world that will do everything it can to stop that.  It’s very much like learning a language.  That moment when you start dreaming in the other language, a major shift has occurred.    

Ritual, for me, is the door that opens that perceptual framework.  Rituals of connection, of honoring, and of responding to nature’s invocation to us are doors that open into that sight.  It’s a hard, hard thing to try to do this alone.  The making of sacred community is a task for which we must “gird up our loins and set to the plow.”

If we shall have a vision-making for the Maine pagan communities, then let us take the necessary time to establish sacred-soul relationship with the land where we are, and then afterwards begin the journey of seeking, listening, and clarifying that which the earth asks of us, so that we may authentically be priests of nature.

Copyright © 2012 James Lawer

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